..."the unkempt hair, the mustaches, the clothes"...
This film strip, cut from an weathered contact sheet and pressed like an old boutonniere between the leaves of a book, seems more than a little like a relic from a past long gone age. Oddly enough, I can remember exactly when these dark early morning photographs were taken.
It is the dawn of August 17, 1977 and I have just just taken occupancy of the apartment pictured the day before; the very apartment I live in to this day.
Robert and I had just spent a year living in my railroad apartment in a tenement on East 6th Street off of Second Avenue. The second story walk-up, with it's loft bed, wood burning fireplace and bathtub in the kitchen was fine for one twenty year old, but a bit tight for two soon-to-be burly guys.
I'd fled from Brooklyn and moved there in 1975, some months before my 21st birthday. I'd saved $1,600.00 from my factory job and knew I could easily swing the $135.00 necessary to pay the monthly rent. Those were different times in Manhattan. The East Village was filled with vast Ukrainian families, fading hippies and nascent punks. There was a smattering of young gay guys embroidered around the edges, due to the neighborhood's relative convenience to Christopher Street. In those days, the East Village was considered the bedroom of the West Village. A cab ride from Ty's cost $1.25, including tip. Of course, the Budweisers we drank were all of .75 cents. It seemed that bartenders could make a very decent living on all the quarter tips we left. Broadway theatre tickets were all of $10.00, a movie 3 bucks, concerts a mere 5 or 6 dollars. The living was easy.
I lived there, enjoying my relative solitude, until I met Robert on the very eve of my 21st birthday. After an atypical nine month gestation period, he moved in with me, with the idea that we'd find a new place when my lease was up.
I knew I didn't want to live in a railroad flat again, if I could help it. A full bathroom would be nice, a shower most welcome. We walked around the neighborhood, looking at the "Apt. for Rent" signs. There was an apartment on St. Mark's Place that I entertained for a minute. I like the idea of being Mark on St. Mark's Place, but the rooms were too small, too cramped after 6th Street. Wandering a few blocks further, we came upon another sign on 12th Street. I recognized the building as one I'd spent the night in, some years back, with a man who took me home from the Ramrod. I forget his name. There was a management office on premises, and we walked in, expecting nothing. The woman in the office curtly gave us a key to an apartment on the 5th floor. Upstairs, I recoiled at the miniscule boxy darkness that confronted us. We closed the door without walking in, and went back down to return the key. On an off chance, I asked if there was anything else available in the building. She looked us over and mentioned that there was an apartment that had been vacant for the better part of the last year. The reason? Too expensive for the neighborhood, such as it was. Robert and I were both what-the-hell kind of guys and decided to have a look. The rent? $350.00.
We rode the elevator to the top floor, getting off in a skylit sunny oasis. We turned the key and entered a bright white apartment. A small vestibule, a decent sized kitchen. Turning the corner we found two windows and a french door leading out onto a terrace. I looked at the keyring and found the key that opened the french door. We stepped out to an 11th floor rooftop terrace that commanded 270 degree views of Manhattan, from the Chrysler Building down to the Verrazano Bridge and back up to Williamsburg. We looked at each other, amazed. We went back in and spotted the small wood burning fireplace in the corner. I walked into the bathoom and found it huge by Manhattan standards. I checked the toilet to see if it flushed, for some reason. I never bothered to notice that the apartment had no closets. Or that the bedroom was so miniscule as to hold only full size bed and a bookcase. We would have been happy sleeping on the floor. We never realized that living in a penthouse in a badly maintained East Village building would be akin to taking up residence in a trailer, albeit one with a view. We went back down and signed the lease.
In the 70's, we all helped move one another from apartment to apartment. You'd help move the boxes, and the host would buy beer and take you out to dinner when it was over. We called in our acquired favors, gathering our friends on a Saturday afternoon, and the move was over in a couple of hours. Even the piano movers managed to deliver my old Mission upright without too much damage. Dinner for ten was at the Ukrainian National Home.
That night we danced, as usual, at 12West. After dawn, we wandered the empty Sunday morning streets, walking up Second Avenue to our new home. I noticed I could see it from the churchyard of St. Mark's on the Bowery against the brightening sky.
Once home, I opened all the doors and windows to let the air streaming up from New York Harbor fill the apartment. I stripped off my clothes, soaked with sweat from a night of dancing. Robert and I wandered out on the terrace naked, completely oblivious to the world waking up around us. We returned inside to collapse on the sofa, which was still in the middle of the living room waiting to find it's home. Drinking coffee and listening to quiet, soothing music, I wrapped myself up in an old silk army surplus parachute and read the paper, occasionally contemplating my new vista.
That's when Robert took these pictures in quick succession.
Robert is long gone. New York is not the city it once was. However, I'm still here in these rooms 29 years later.